At about this time every year, certain of the more liberal members of Ithaca’s Greek-American community hold a combined dance/banquet at the chapter house of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The proceeds go to benefit local Democratic candidates. This year’s banquet, held in honor of Congressional candidate Matt McHugh and Mayor Ed Conley, who has his sights set on the state assembly, was, for all appearances, much like last year’s affair. There was a lot of dancing, drinking and eating, a lot of jokes, a lot of backs slapped. Everyone was in high spirits — or so it seemed.
The studious observer would have noticed that the carefree expressions of most of the 30 or 40 couples in attendance were slightly forced. Even as they danced and drank, it was evident that the partyers were not really having a good time. Something else was on their minds: Cyprus.
Indeed, ever since the recent invasion of that Greek island by the Turkish army and navy, the 200 to 300 Greek-Americans living in Ithaca have been able to think of little else.
“I’ve been living here for 27 years,” said Dino Marinos, straining to make himself heard over the musical accompaniment to “Never on Sunday,” “but my heart is still there.” Marinos owns and operates a hairdressing salon on Elmira Road. Like most of the other members of the community, he feels a deep sense of affront at the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. He thinks that “Greek pride” now dictates that his country go to war with Turkey. If it does, he says, and if Greece should find itself in need of extra manpower, he would be ready to fly over and join in the fight immediately. Many others at the dance expressed similar sentiments.
Rape of Cyprus
If Marinos and his fellow Greeks feel affronted and angered by the Turkish “rape” of Cyprus (He is not surprised by the stories of Turkish atrocities which have been appearing in the press. “They are barbarians,” the normally affable hairdresser says. “They have always been barbarians”), they are even more incensed — as well as a little perplexed — by the American government’s seemingly nonchalant attitude regarding the entire affair.
“Greece has always been one of this country’s most faithful allies and trusted friends,” declared one Greek-American who asked not to be identified, “so why hasn’t it come to its aid? Why, as Cyprus is being overrun by Turkish tanks and soldiers and airplanes and hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed and wounded, does this country continue to supply Turkey, the aggressor, with aid? Has Washington decided that it is more important to retain its bases in Turkey than it is to preserve the lives of 500,000 Greek Cypriote people? I guess it has.”
Even those members of-the Greek community who in the past have been the staunchest defenders of American actions abroad, including the disastrous involvement in Vietnam, now find themselves unable, or unwilling to apologize for, or even explain their adopted country’s policy in Cyprus.
Sense of Betrayal
Take Gus Lambrou. Gus, the colorful, outspoken proprietor of the Campus Grocery on Eddy Street, also owns the Stone Travel Agency and numerous apartments and houses in the Collegetown area. Usually, he loves to talk — or rather, argue — about politics. Most of his regular patrons, generally Cornell students of liberal and/or radical political bias, can remember having gotten into at least one long, knock-down-drag-out political “discussion” over the years. For those first moving to the Collegetown area such confrontations have practically become a rite of initiation.
But Gus has not been so combative lately. He doesn’t want to talk about politics, especially not about Cyprus. When pressed on the subject, however, he admits to feeling very hurt by the stance this country has adopted. “I feel betrayed,” he sighed. “I feel angry, but more than anything else I feel betrayed, hurt.”
In the meantime, Gus keeps on top of the deteriorating situation in Cyprus by reading his daily copy of The Free World, a Greek paper published in Athens which he subscribes to every year for $160. After he finishes the paper he passes it around to other members of the community who drop by the grocery as the day goes by. By evening, it is practically in tatters.
Ithaca’s Greek-American community is, as one might suspect, quite close-knit. As Christine Gagomiros, whose father owns the Souvlaki House, a Greek restaurant in Collegetown, puts it, “It’s one big family.”
There are many reasons for this. First of all, the community is relatively small, comprised of no more than 200 to 300 members. Secondly, the vast majority of Greeks here (80 percent is a conservative estimate) not only come from the same country but from the same part of the country, the Peloponnesus. And indeed, most of them either descend or originate from the very same town, Tsintsinas, a small agricultural community 30 miles ‘outside of Sparta. “One came and the others followed,” explains Gus. (The “one” was Nick Pappas, who immigrated the late 1800s and opened a shoeshine parlor downtown.)
Every year, according to what is now a community tradition, 15 to 20 of Ithaca’s Greeks return to Tsintsinas and Sparta to and their vacations and visit relatives. Another reason for the community’s strength is that most of the family bread-winners are small businesspeople. “There are many diners in Ithaca,” this paper’s food critic once observed, “and most seem to be run by Greeks.” He was not too far off the mark.
In truth, Greek-Americans own and operate nearly half of Ithaca’s eating establishments, including the Cosmopolitan, the State Diner, Pop’s Place, Steak soma, Manos Diner, the Souvlaki House (one of the community’s favorite hang-outs), and the French Connection.
Other Greek-owned businesses include the Valex Agency, a talent agency run by John Perialis, and Gus’ Stone Travel Agency. here are also numerous Greek-American professionals, including a dean of students at Ithaca College and two Greek lawyers ho handle all the community’s legal business.
Local Greeks hold frequent social functons, including at least six “Greek-American” dances a year (many of which feature dancers and authentic bouzouki music). But the main institution by which it perpetuates itself is St. Catherine’s Greek Orhthodox Church, located at the corners of Seneca and Geneva streets. The pastor of the church, Father Elias Mentis, is native-born and speaks both Greek and English. He moved to Ithaca three years ago to replace another priest who could speak only Greek.
“We wanted someone who could speak to us and our children,” explains Gus, who was instrumental in instigating the change.
Everyone agrees Father Mentis is the head of the community. In addition to presiding over church services, he teaches Sunday school, where the children learn Greek language and history. “The children have a right to be American first,” explains one satisfied parent, “but they should also know where their parents come from.”